LURC nears choices on Plum Creek

Posted Sept. 19, 2008, at 10:44 p.m.

The paperwork alone takes up 35 file cabinet drawers in a state office building.

The company behind the largest development proposal in Maine history has already paid state regulators more than $1.2 million just to cover the costs of processing the application.

It’s been the subject of weeks of public meetings, and consumed thousands of hours of staff time within state agencies during the past three years. But by the middle of next week, Plum Creek Timber Co. officials will finally know where they stand.

The Land Use Regulation Commission will hold two days of meetings next week to determine its position on Plum Creek’s historic Moosehead Lake development proposal. Groups involved in the official proceedings will also give closing statements during the sessions.

LURC will meet at the Ramada Inn in Bangor beginning at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Both meetings are open to the public, although the commission will not be accepting additional public comments.

At the end of the meetings, LURC staff will prepare the final list of recommended changes that would be needed for the commission to approve Plum Creek’s development plan.

Plum Creek officials will then have about 10 days to decide whether to accept or reject the proposed changes — with an understanding that a rejection by Plum Creek would likely kill the application.

“My best guess is that we will all have a good sense of where we are heading next week,” said Catherine Carroll, LURC’s staff director. “It’s an all-or-nothing deal. They [Plum Creek officials] have to say they can live with all of it.”

It’s taken years of behind-the-scenes discussion, several major revisions and an enormous amount of public feed-back to get to this point.

Plum Creek is seeking LURC authorization for a concept plan that would allow the company to develop 975 house lots and two large resorts on 20,000 acres in the Moosehead region over 30 years.

The unprecedented scope of the proposal has sparked intense debate and deeply divided Mainers from all corners.

Supporters forecast Plum Creek’s plan, which would trigger the protection of more than 400,000 acres of forestland in the region, will create jobs and promote tourism while conserving the region’s natural beauty.

Opponents predict the opposite: increased pollution and traffic, relatively few good-paying jobs and sprawling development. All of that will spoil the very wilderness qualities that draw tourists to Maine’s largest lake, critics have said.

In June, LURC released a draft list of amendments to Plum Creek’s plan, which where then subject to another round of scrutiny by interested parties and the public. The commission is expected to vote on those amendments on Wednesday but could make additional changes.

The June recommendations include cutting in half the number of house lots on Long Pond and reducing the amount of developable acreage near Lily Bay. The commission has also said Plum Creek must complete several privately negotiated land conservation deals encompassing roughly 300,000 acres within 45 days of LURC’s final approval.

But LURC did not reduce the number of house lots, as plan opponents had wanted, or scale back or eliminate the company’s plan for a 250-accommodation resort on Lily Bay. The latter has become the biggest flashpoint in what is arguably the most contentious and controversial proposal in LURC history.

Plum Creek officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Plan opponents have not given up. Critics will read from some of the impassioned testimony submitted to LURC during an event Tuesday, also at the Ramada Inn, being organized by Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Wendy Weiger, coordinator for the grass-roots group Moosehead Region Futures Committee, said her organization remains concerned about the amount of development that would be allowed at Brassua Lake, Lily Bay, Indian Pond and Upper Wilson Pond.

“This really will be precedent-setting for the whole North Woods and our hope is that [the commissioners] will keep in mind the importance of what they are doing,” Weiger said.

It will likely be several more months before the commission takes a final vote on the application. If Plum Creek officials accept the recommendations — and they agreed to most already — they will have to make all of the changes to their application.

Carroll said she hopes a final vote to either approve or reject Plum Creek’s plan will come early next year. If the application is approved, the company can begin implementing its plan, a process that will involve lengthy subdivision reviews, resort plans and other regulatory hurdles.

“My impression is regardless of if it’s an approval or a denial, it will get appealed” in court, Carroll said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

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